Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America, edited by Joan Ockman with Rebecca Williamson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012, 400 pages, $50.

Academic Discourse

Architecture students hard at work at drafting tables at MIT in 1898.
Photo courtesy Associat ion of Collegiate Schools of Architecture
Architecture students hard at work at drafting tables at MIT in 1898.
Architecture students hard at work at drafting tables at Kent State in 1967.
Photo courtesy Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture
Architecture students hard at work at drafting tables at Kent State in 1967.

What is the status of the “big book” today? The editors of Architecture School, along with the board of advisers of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture—which initiated the book to celebrate its 100th anniversary—must have asked that question often while preparing this massive survey. As the field of architecture education develops, its historical territory becomes ever more populated by experts, which creates a culture of hesitancy about all things big. In that context, the implications of undertaking a “definitive” book like this must have been daunting and possibly paralyzing.

Yet the effort comes off well, for the most part. Led by the respected scholar Joan Ockman, contributors are largely well known, often returning to previous research. Ockman begins by stating the book's aim: to "open up as many avenues as possible for future inquiry and, in doing so, to work against the tendency to produce a canonical history." The project's internal tensions could not be more neatly expressed.

The first half of the book is a continuous, "overlapping" history of the North American architecture school, from "Before 1860" to "1990-2012." In chapters on early periods, which broadly follow the rise and fall of French Beaux-Arts influence and then the rise and fall of European Modernism, authors uncover some of the lesser-known "avenues" that Ockman hints at. Anthony Alofsin, for instance, writes that it was the University of Oregon that first broke from the pervasive Beaux-Arts approach of airless academicism by experimenting in the 1920s with actual building projects.

Essays on the period between 1920 and 1968 indicate another trend: the continued desire and failure of architecture to engage social and political issues substantively. This failing is truest in the period 1940-68, covered by Ockman and Avigail Sachs. Their quotation from Whitney Young's indictment of the field at the 1968 AIA convention still rings depressingly true. Young "accused the profession of 'thunderous silence and complete irrelevance' " in relation to the political tumult of that era. His accusation is a shadow that haunts much of the book, depicting architecture education (and architects at large) as an accidental society of do-gooders who rarely manage to do good.

After 1968, the reader confronts familiar perspectives in essays on the recent past. Mary McLeod's piece on 1968-90 recounts the same roll call we've heard for years-the Whites, the Grays, Oppositions, Deconstructivism, and so on. Worse is Stan Allen's history of the years from 1990 to the present. Allen seems unconcerned with the discipline's displacement by rationalized building practices in a culture of relentless economy and "optimization." "Young firms," for him, are represented in ideal terms: "technologically adept and agile, capable of making rapid adjustments as the project or the market requires." This description disregards the actual situation of such firms, whose work often consists of small installations or renovations, drawn up by waves of unpaid interns.

Such problems, both past and present, would have been elucidated by some indication of the raw numbers. We are told how many students and schools there were, roughly, at certain times, but are given no larger indication of the rise and fall of enrollment or what, exactly, all these architecture students ended up doing. A good, though slightly out-of-date, counterpoint is Mary Woods's excellent 1999 book From Craft to Profession. Woods tells the story of architecture schools in the 20th century with a devastating statistical clarity-enrollments rose 253 percent between 1960 and 1980, while construction in real dollars remained more or less stagnant. This kind of detail is almost completely lacking in the Ockman book.

However, that myopia is slightly improved in the second half of Architecture School, which examines topics that allow authors to apply larger historical trends to particular areas of discourse. Presented in encyclopedic format, it is a sampling of smaller histories-of architecture-school buildings and historic preservation, among others. For instance, Annmarie Adams's essay on gender issues nicely shuttles between a genealogy of specific personalities and the enrollment numbers for women through the 20th century. The topics vary but are telling. What other field would include "disciplinarity" (its limits and identity) as an object of analysis?

This book presented a paradox: how to make a canonical history in a post-canonical era. It is somehow touching that such a history would be written for the centenary of the ACSA-a ritualistic return to arbitrary dates and anniversaries. The cycle of time remains a clich' from which we cannot escape. And the alphabetical arrangement of the second half betrays another stubborn tradition: We continue to put things in order, no matter how recalcitrant those things are to ordering. The result remains a mostly impressive effort and an archive of the concerns-both conscious and undeclared-of our moment.

Aleksandr Bierig is an M.Arch. candidate at Princeton's School of Architecture and an editor of the school's biannual magazine, Pidgin.